Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

04 MAY, 2011

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

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What the fountain of youth has to do with robots and unlearning our faulty thinking.

Earlier this year, we looked at how the web is changing the way we think, alongside 7 must-read books on the future of the Internet. But many of these prognoses seem to be tragically dystopian — could there, perhaps, be a more hopeful outlook for our technology-encrusted future? After a stark confrontation with his own mortality, comedian Mark Stevenson spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, trying to figure out just that. He synthesized these fascinating insights in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?” — an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to cancer research, Stevenson explores the most cutting-edge ideas in science and technology from around the world, the important ethical and philosophical questions they raise and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of these different ideas and disciplines.

This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson

Stevenson proses a number of mental reboots that shift some of our present cognitive bad habits, from linear thinking about the future to hierarchical, top-down views of innovation.

Part trendhunting, part rigorous research, part cultural anthropology, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future may just be our generation’s version of Bill Brysons’s iconic A Short History of Nearly Everything — a bold and entertaining blueprint for a future that’s ours to shape and ours to live.

Illustration by John Dykes for WSJ

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26 APRIL, 2011

The Ragged Edge of Silence: The Art of Listening

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What 17 years of silence have to do with National Geographic and your ringtone.

In 1971, after the devastating 800,000-gallon oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, John Francis, then a young man, pledged to never ride a motorized vehicle again. Two years later, he added voluntary silence to his vow, spending 17 years in silence as he walked the world and became known as The Planetwalker. The first words that he spoke again were in Washington, D.C., on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. In 2009, Francis, by then a National Geographic fellow with a Ph.D, told his remarkable story in the candid and deeply inspirational Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.

This year, Dr. Francis is back with the highly anticipated and most excellent follow-up, The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World — a powerful and poetic exploration of the beauty of our world and our place in it, and a timely antidote to our increasingly networked, ping-scored existence.

The Ragged Edge of Silence explores the art of listening through a beautiful collage of personal accounts, interviews, science, storytelling, and a fascinating historical perspective on the role of silence across Hindu, Buddhist and Native American cultures. Francis transcends the purely philosophical to offer practical ways of building constructive silence into our everyday routines as micro-oases of self-discovery amidst our stimulus-overloaded lives.

The Ragged Edge of Silence digs deeply into the phenomenology of silence and the practice of listening. As in Planetwalker, I followed a methodology that recognizes the importance of personal documents, explanations, and interpretation of silence. This story, then, is my personal account and interpretation of silence as I experienced it.” ~ John Francis

For a moving glimpse of Francis’ unusual story, don’t miss his excellent 2008 TED talk:

Part adventure story, part philosophical reflection, part heartfelt memoir, The Ragged Edge of Silence is a pure joy to read, lacking the self-righteous preachiness this line of thinking often festers into and instead extending a humble but powerful invitation to reexamine your worldview.

Thanks, Jim

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18 APRIL, 2011

NASA + William Shatner: Space Shuttle’s Legacy

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This month, NASA announced that after 30 years of spaceflight and over 130 missions, its Space Shuttle Program fleet will be retiring to an earthly resting place. To commemorate the fleet’s remarkable legacy, NASA produced this fantastic short documentary, narrated by none other than William Shatner:

An idea born in unsettled times becomes a feat of engineering excellence. The most complex machine ever built to bring humans to and from space and eventually construct the next stop on the road to space exploration.”

The film comes mere days after public outrage over proposed NASA budget cuts, along with NASA’s own appeals, finally appeared to have moved Congress to approve a healthier funding grant of $18.5 billion. Meanwhile, ordinary NASA fans continue to churn out extraordinary tributes that attempt to bridge the frustrating gap between NASA’s deeply inspirational work and the toothless official communication about it.

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